How Donald Trump Changed Political Comics
Eli Valley on making art that pisses off the demagogues and bigots
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
When Eli Valley introduced his book Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel last month at McNally Jackson, he spoke to a room rapt with attention. Valley is not only a singular artist and incisive writer, he’s also a hilarious and dynamic performer. Through a visual presentation incorporating his comics, he made the audience laugh while lampooning conservative critiques of his work (Bret Stephens called it “grotesque” and “wretched”) and showed photographs of himself engaging in activism throughout his life, culminating in photographs from protests this year in the wake of the Trump election.
Though the comics in the book end with Valley’s interpretations of the Republican primaries, the ten years of work provide a timeline and analysis that helps make sense of the cultural shifts that led to an America where Donald Trump could gain widespread support. With both micro analyses of specific events in the Jewish political and cultural communities and macro interpretations of large scale issues in the U.S., Valley’s work helps the reader understand the cultural structures underlaying the problems facing a divided nation. Valley’s work blends history with satire in an effort to both inform and entertain the reader on the complex relationship between America and Israel.
Valley and I met in the East Village to talk about constructing a book made of both comics and essays, the threats facing political journalists and artists, and the backlash his work has received.
Rebecca Schuh: I love that Diaspora Boy integrated so many artistic and narrative elements. Can you talk a little bit about the process of bringing together the comics and the analytical writing?
Eli Valley: The comics themselves came about over the course of ten years. A lot of them were based on things that had happened years prior. I’ve gathered visual materials related to my work, from a hobbyist perspective, for the entire ten years as well: postcards from Israel, stamps, I have one book over a hundred years old from Germany. I accumulated a lot, and on a trip to Israel I took these photographs myself, at Yad Vashem and the Diaspora Museum. If you’re passionate about something, you’re able to combine a hobbyist interest with an actual rigorous exploration.
RS: I love that. I was really impressed with how much you were able to integrate.
EV: I give presentations on my work, so I like to keep in mind the slideshow format, which is in some ways similar to comics with the combination of the narration and the visual. A presentation is live so it’s different, but the storytelling via visual narrative is similar in slideshows so I accumulated a lot for that purpose as well. For the introduction I mined a lot of that material.
RS: In terms of the timeline of publishing, I was thinking about how most of the comics, if not all, were before the election.
EV: The last one was done for the book exclusively, and the last two before were done during the primaries.
RS: How did your perception of the world that the book is being published into into change after the election?
EV: For one thing, I spoke in the introduction about Donald Trump the way we all thought of him at the time. It was the middle of last year. I wrote about him as a buffoon, a dangerous buffoon, someone who wouldn’t actually become president. And so I spoke about him in terms of what it revealed about Jewish leaders who were supporting him despite his being a hero of American naziism — this was clear long before Charlottesville. I’m glad that is in the introduction. It makes it relevant today. It’s about chronicling American Jewish communal support for the same forces of demagoguery and bigotry that prevailed in Israel over the past decade, and that now prevail in America. We’re all wondering how it’s happened here — when you look at the stuff in this book, it’s in some ways a harbinger of where we are now.
RS: That’s so interesting, I guess I hadn’t thought about how you were tracking that ascent. No one could have known he was going to get elected, but reading your book makes it obvious that there were definitely some cultural shifts that could have predicted that someone like him would come to power.
EV: Absolutely. I call Trump Netanyahu with smaller hands in the introduction. Netanyahu shares a lot in common with Trump. Including demagoguery, bigotry, attacks on the press, attacks on institutions of democracy, attacks on human rights organizations. I don’t know if Trump has gone that far yet, but he will. It’s a similar method of autocrats. It was inconceivable to me for the past ten years that anyone in a Jewish communal organization or institution would allow Netanyahu into its doors, because he’s the kind of thing that we have feared. And yet, he’s the head of the Jewish state.
RS: You talk in the book about backlash you got at different points for the comics. Do you have any memorable stories about an incidence of that backlash?
EV: There were so many. The main one that changed a lot of things for me was the one where I positioned Abe Foxman as an anti-semite. I talk a lot about how he waged this war on The Forward until they stopped running me. The Forward didn’t want to make an immediate cut because they didn’t want to make it look like they were bowing to McCarthyite pressure, so they did a slow, don’t accept his pitches, we’ll take a smattering, but it’s over. I was able to get in three or four over the course of the next year, I don’t remember exactly how many, but…it really left me…it wasn’t a great experience.
RS: That sounds very scarring.
EV: The Forward of all places, I liked it because it was a Jewish communal institution. While I was there, it was writing critical introspection and calling out hypocrisy among readers, and that was important, and when that became unavailable it was depressing because in terms of personal expression you want a higher outlet, but also the idea of the strength and sustainability of Jewish institutions — the only newspaper to consider itself an independent watchdog bowing to McCarthyite pressure was disturbing.
RS: Journalists are really concerned right now about the freedom of the press, with good reason. Have you noticed that in practice yet?
EV: I think we’re mostly talking about it in theory. I think the larger problem for political art is just outlets in general. They don’t want to pay for something that isn’t clickbait. The outlets for journalists of all types are shrinking, not just political artists.
Without mentioning specifics there was one outlet where they said the publisher and editor weren’t pro Trump, but they didn’t accept something of mine because they did not want to rock the boat too much. It’s not happening yet to the degree that we have feared, although that can still come. The main issue is the continuing erosion of the print landscape and lack of options and diversity of outlets. The main one recently being the Village Voice print edition.
The outlets for journalists of all types are shrinking, not just political artists.
RS: That was so upsetting and it happened so quickly, I don’t think anybody saw it coming. They were such a stalwart.
EV: Yeah exactly, Honestly, thirty years ago, alt-weeklies were the lifebloods of communities. Now, you can count them on one hand.
RS: It’s scary too to think of how, in journalism, we’re at this point where the funding is so scarce, and like you were saying there’s the problem of clickbait, and now it’s intersecting with the political persecution of journalists — it’s coming from all sides. You had this focus throughout the book on events that maybe the average layperson might have forgotten had happened in the past few years. How was it revisiting these events now, especially when we’re now so inundated with fifteen breaking news items every day?
EV: In some ways it was exhausting revisiting these crazy policy and politics debates, and also actual actions and behavior, but in other ways the introduction is so in depth it provides this underlying skeleton for the whole book, it allowed me to see each comic through the lens of the cohesive vision of Israel and the diaspora.
RS: That’s a great metaphor, thinking of it with the vertebrae, all books have that to a certain degree but it’s especially apt for a book that contains so much art. You did talk about a lot of events I didn’t know about, but I found with your descriptions I was definitely able to contextualize it very quickly, there wasn’t anything that I was like, I don’t get this at all. Another thing I really loved was how you played with these pop cultural forms through the art, like the Obama paper doll and the Choose Your Own Apocalypse. Can you describe the process of how you pick cultural tomes like that and then integrate them into your art?
EV: Basically I have an extensive idea file. With Choose your Own Apocalypse and some of the noir comics, I love these ephemera from the past, and I always want to find some way to make it fit. Once I find something that matches, I go with it. It’s like there’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, and then an opportunity arises.
RS: I love the comic where you had the Chagall painting integrated. I thought there was something really unique about how you took the painting and put it into the comic but then also took Chagall’s specific art style and integrated it with yours in the panels. Can you talk a little about the actual artistic process of that, how you go about learning different styles?
EV: With me for this one, form followed function. Because I was talking about these horrific animal rights abuses in Postville, and the Chabad movement that I was going after at this time likes to portray themselves as embodying Jewish folkloric things of yesteryear, like Norman Rockwell ideas. Or Chagall paintings, including this one. They think they’re in a Chagall painting but it’s a twisted Chagall painting. So I went to this painting, which I always loved, and tried finding things in it that would relate to the actual horrific abuses. So this is what determined it, and then I developed it into different panels with very specific horrors that were perpetrated by this company.
RS: Another one I was really fascinated by was your Amy Winehouse comic.
EV: I’m glad.
RS: It was one of my favorites, but more than just being a big Amy Winehouse fan I loved how this really critiqued gender relations in a way that was so piercing. There was one line, about the effort to “define her potential through such an archaic lens.”
EV: This comic was wrestling with ways that her life and death were being distorted for political ends but also noting how I, too, was distorting it, and inventing an idealized version of a female celebrity, but I realized I was doing it, so I tried to call myself out within the comic.
I love over the top. I love insanity. I think that the political debates I’m satirizing are insane, so I tweak them a little bit to make it a distorted mirror of reality.
RS: Another thing I was struck by in the book was how funny it was. I wasn’t expecting it! Can you talk about how you developed your sense of humor, or how you would define it?
EV: Basically I love over the top. I love insanity. I think that the political debates I’m satirizing are insane, so I tweak them a little bit to make it a distorted mirror of reality. The specific antecedents are the Mad Magazine comics of the 1950’s which lampooned a lot of the sacred institutions of Americana in a period of mass commercialization and consumption — things like Mickey Mouse, which they made into Mickey Rodent, or Archie, they went after all these popular cultural bulwarks, and they just eviscerated them. While they were making fun of both the comics or television shows or movies themselves, they were also using them as a way to satirize elements of a capitalist society at the time including McCarthy. So the early Mad comics were an intense inspiration from that perspective, but also the perspective of the actual method of the two stalwarts that were Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. With Will Elder, in particular, it was the way he drew, it was so beautiful and intricate but also so wild and out of this world in terms of the way he would pack every panel with so many different details and asides and illusions.
RS: Now that the book is published, what kind of comics are you working on?
EV: Right now I’m focusing on what’s happening in the Trump administration and the perspective and the levels of Jewish complicity within that.